Race and Covenant:
Recovering the Religious Roots of American Reconciliation
edited by gerald r. mcdermott
acton institute, 318 pages, $19.95
While working on “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” I was pleased to discover the recent essay collection Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots of American Reconciliation, edited by Gerald R. McDermott. Written by a group of largely, but not exclusively, Christian thinkers, it is a most welcome volume in a Christian world divided (at least if the soi-disant leaders on Twitter are to be believed) between those who think racism is the only sin that exists and those who think it is the only sin that doesn’t. The book has none of the stridency that now passes for serious conviction in the wider world of racial politics, left and right. What it offers instead is a discussion of race in America that acknowledges the very real scars of slavery and the ongoing problem of race along with proposals that seek a constructive way forward.
At the heart of the project lie a number of themes. Perhaps most important is the consistent rejection of the quasi-religious status of victimhood behind so much of the current conflict in Christian circles. The appropriation of the language of civil rights by LGBTQ+ activists has been a key part of the success of that movement in the public square. It is predicated on the notion, now deeply embedded in our therapeutic culture, that victimhood is sainthood and is defined by no moral framework beyond that of the discourses of power within society. So whether it is race or sexual orientation or gender identity, whoever lacks power can be canonized and whoever possesses it can be demonized. This is the point made in several of the essays but most notably in those by Joshua Mitchell and Derryck Green. To quote Mitchell:
Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, transsexual rights: are these not all fungible variants on the same theme of transgression and innocence? Asked figuratively to step back, while new franchise-expanding innocents are invited to occupy the front seats of the Democratic Party bus, African Americans are expected to sit tight, without complaining about where the bus is going or how much it is costing them—or at least a large number of them.
And that is the dilemma that the uncharacteristically timid officer class of evangelicalism now faces in the U.S. today: How to deal with the race issue without ending up with a liberationist biblical hermeneutic and church culture that simply read “good” and “evil” as “victim” and “victimizer” without first setting those categories within some larger moral framework. According to Green, this problem is particularly acute within the black Christian community. As he comments:
God forbid that a Christian black reject racial victimhood and the church’s adoption of a secular gospel. Other black Christians will shame and try to silence the black brother or sister who strays from the plantation. Christian whites will be afraid to welcome or comfort the black brother who “strayed” for fear of being perceived of aiding and abetting racism.
But the book is far from a lamentation about the way in which secular philosophies and patterns of identity have hijacked and subverted the church on the issue of race. It has numerous narrative essays, including a brilliant, balanced piece on the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Carol Swain provides a moving account of her own upbringing in generational black poverty but then parlays this into a sharp critique of the double standards of the left on the matter of racism. Her appeal for decency in dealing with others—that quality of interpersonal engagement rooted in empathy for the other—is needed in this era of corrosive online nastiness. A number of essays rightly stress that no side can blame its problems purely on the enemy outside the community. The enemy within has a role to play too, both in the community at large and in the sinful heart of the individual.
A number of positive proposals emerge in its pages. Glenn Loury is characteristically brilliant in his analysis. He makes a good case for seeing “transracial humanism,” rooted in empathy and a social covenant, as a far better way of approaching the racial divide—what is ultimately a social/community issue—than the abstract, judicial, and somewhat nebulous category of “racial justice.” In the essay “Little Black Lives Matter,” Alveda C. King and Evan Musgraves point out that one cannot separate the issue of racism from that of abortion. Both the left and the right have tended to do this, the former as a way of pointing out that abortion is not the only sin to be taken into account at the ballot box, the latter as a way of saying that racism can be sidelined because abortion is much worse. The truth is that abortion disproportionately slaughters black babies. King and Musgraves end with a disquisition on how to think about this matter—not with regard to voting, but rather with regard to how churches need to be places that offer care and support to the unborn and the mothers who carry them. Simply voting Republican does not make one pro-life any more than voting Democrat clears one of racism. As the authors express it “The most powerful witness against a culture of discrimination and death is a culture of life and love.”
One theme that McDermott sets forth in his introduction and that surfaces at significant points throughout the work is the idea of the national covenant, of a conscious, corporate acknowledgment of the nation’s responsibility before God. I confess some hesitation on this score. Some of this is likely just terminological: I have no issue with the world and its constituent elements being accountable to God, but “national covenant” carries connotations of national hubris and of elect nations; some of this thinking lies behind the current race problems in America. McDermott and others are careful to rule this thinking out, stressing the idea that such a covenant really puts responsibilities on society and demands humility. Quite so. But my uneasiness with the language remains.
More serious, however, is the problem of what “the nation” is today to which such a covenant might apply. Ancient Israel, as several essays note, was an ethnic-religious entity. Its identity was relatively clear and stable. But as many would argue—and as Robert George recently pointed out—America is a creedal nation. I would add that the problem is that the national creed, embodied in the founding documents and the old narrative of freedom from British oppression, is now contested both in terms of meaning and in terms of status. The competing historical narratives of our identity politics point directly to that. Many years ago, Benedict Anderson made the case in a compelling fashion that nations are imagined communities, where people who never meet still imagine themselves to be part of a larger whole. The problem is that various forces, from conflicting historical narratives to the Internet, are dissolving the collective national imagination. The concept of nation is no longer an agreed-upon framework for debating other issues; it is itself the focus of deep contention. And that makes me wonder if an appeal to national covenant, even if appropriately qualified as in this volume, is ultimately impractical until the very issues the authors highlight are resolved.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent and thought-provoking collection. For those who think tweeted cliches are thoughtful contributions, calm prose is compromise, and the politics of ressentiment is the path to righteousness, it has little to offer in the way of comfort. For the rest of us, it is an important book to read and ponder.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
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